Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


February 27th 2013 marked Paul Ricoeur’s 100th Birthday.

“Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) is widely recognized as one of the most distinguished philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

As Wikipedia writes:

Paul Ricœur (27 February 1913 – 20 May 2005) was a French philosopher best known for combining phenomenological description with hermeneutics. As such his thought is situated within the same tradition as other major hermeneutic phenomenologists, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. In 2000 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for having “revolutionized the methods of hermeneutic phenomenology, expanding the study of textual interpretation to include the broad yet concrete domains of mythology, biblical exegesis, psychoanalysis, theory of metaphor, and narrative theory.”


Ricoeur was also from the French Reformed tradition and helped articulate phenomenology and hermeneutics in a way conducive to the Protestant emphasis on the primacy of the word in proclamation.  As Ricoeur wrote: “It is the text, with its universal power of world disclosure, which gives a self to the ego.”

Kevin_VanhoozerRicoeur has been influential on the thought of several Reformed theologians today; namely Michael Horton (People and Place; Pilgrim Theology) and Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Drama of Doctrine; Remythologizing Theology).

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What is courage?  I suppose that is a good question for modern-day Americans to ask. Indeed, I do not think we generally know the answer, or at least not very well.  G.K. Chesterton, however, drew a parallel between courage and the european idea of chivalry which I found fascinating. He wrote:

No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious

indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.

I always knew there was something right about King Arthur and wrong about the Last Samurai.

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Today one might often hear folks holding to the “authority of scripture” or Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) as proof of their Reformed (or more broadly, Christian) orthodoxy. The concept of biblical authority is considered that “safe all” category sufficient to always guide one home to truth. As long as we maintain Sola Scriptura, (it is assumed) we’ll be good. And we’ll always be reforming the church (semper reformanda).

But this is a dangerous misunderstanding, both of the Reformed distinctive (Sola Scriptura), as well as the nature of theology itself. And we see this mistake played out in history.

Carl Trueman observes how in John Owen’s day, “the Socinians appear to hold to a basic scripture principle in a formally similar manner to the orthodox.” That is, they held to a form of Sola Scritpura: Scripture alone was the sole and final authority in determining truth. For some odd reason, however, the Socinians couldn’t seem to find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity anywhere in Scripture!

What Owen labored to demonstrate, therefore, was that sola scriptura was not enough. It was not merely scripture’s authority that was all-important, but also its interpretation.

Trueman explains the difference between the two approaches:

The differences, in fact, are significant, and go straight to the heart of why Owen can see scripture as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the Socinians reject such a conclusion: the point at issue is not simply whether scripture is the authoritative noetic foundation for theology, but how that scripture is to be interpreted, a point which draws in matters of logic, of metaphysics, and of how individual passages of scripture are mutually related to the act of interpretation…

The radical biblicism of the Socinians was, in effect, cutting the very ground away from under the traditional doctrine and forcing its exponents to greater degrees of precisely the kind of conceptual and linguistic subtlety which the Socinians decried as betraying the straightforward teaching of scripture. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 48-49.

Notice the irony. And yet this is very helpful for us today since we often hear people arguing for a form of “biblicism” which lays claim to the Sola Scriptura principle, all-the-while ignoring the larger philosophical challenges inherent to scripture’s interpretation.

Theology free from metaphysics is impossible.

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Does God help those who help themselves? According to Benjamin Franklin (and many Americans) the answer is, Yes.

It’s fascinating sometimes to see how much of our modern world and modern thought has been shaped by the brilliant minds of the past. In fact, the impact philosophers have on popular culture can probably not be easily overstated.

Now, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was probably one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. As one of my professors likes to put it, almost everything in modern history is a ‘footnote’ to Kant.

And in order to explain Christianity to a modern world of science and observable facts, Kant felt he had to separate “ecclesiastical faith” (e.g. creeds, miracles, Jesus’ Resurrection, etc.)  from what he called “pure moral religion” (e.g., being good). Kant believed the latter was the answer to all our riddles. If he was sure of anything, it was the “moral law within.”

[S]urely we cannot hope to partake … in salvation, except by qualifying for it through our zeal in the compliance with every human duty, and this must be the effect of our own work and not, once again, a foreign influence to which we remain passive [imputation of Christ’s righteousness]. For since the command to do our duty is unconditional, it is also necessary that the human being make the command… the bassis of his faith, i.e., that he begin with the improvement of his life as the supreme condition under which alone a saving faith can occur…. We must strive with all our might after the holy intention of leading a life well-pleasing to God, in order to be able to believe that God’s love for humankind…. will somehow make up, in consideration of that honest intention, for humankind’s deficiency in action, provided that humankind strives to conform to his will with all its might. – Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Religion, 148, 150.

Great minds think alike — even if they’re wrong. Is it any wonder so many people today believe “God helps those who help themselves?” Although the law is written on the heart of all men, we only hear the gospel as a word from ‘outside’ of us, perennially strange, and odd-sounding. If only Franklin and Kant would have listened to good gospel preaching.

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I’ve been talking with my close friends about the difficulty ‘gospel men’ have determining when to fight a theological battle or just avoid offense. As we mature, I doubt this difficulty will go away. Rather, we will likely be tempted to fall into two extremes: 1) offending everybody whenever we disagree with them, or 2) Offending nobody even though we strongly disagree with them.  Both, I believe, are wrong.

As for me, I hope to follow my Lord’s example and that of the apostle Paul.  Although they were gentle as doves with those who needed protection, they surely didn’t avoid conflict with those who needed opposition (“I opposed him to his face,” Gal 2:11), and on occasions seemed to seek it out. And even though they must have known it would arouse the vitriol of their opponents, they didn’t stop short of employing singularly inflammatory statements.

I wonder if Christ or Paul would fair too well in our day… Should we fight? Or should we not? Is there a time to fight? (I think a wise man once said there was a time for everything.)

With that in mind, I ran across this address by J. Gresham Machan entitled ‘The Scientific Preparation of the Minister‘ which was delivered September 20, 1912 at the opening of the 101st session of Princeton Theological Seminary.  As some of us gear up for the ‘Christianity and Liberalism Revisited‘ conference this weekend at WSC, I thought the following paragraph may be particularly appropriate:

Beneath the surface of life lies a world of spirit. Philosophers have attempted to explore it. Christianity has revealed its wonders to the simple soul. There lie the springs of the Church’s power. But that spiritual realm cannot be entered without controversy. And now the Church is shrinking from the conflict. Driven from the spiritual realm by the current of modern thought, she is consoling herself with things about which there is no dispute. If she favours better housing for the poor, she need fear no contradiction… The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment. But sin, and death, and salvation, and life, and God – about these things there is debate.

You can avoid the debate if you choose. You need only drift with the current… The great questions may easily be avoided. Many preachers are avoiding them. And many preachers are preaching to the air. The Church is waiting for men of another type. Men to fight her battles and solve her problems. The hope of finding them is the one great inspiration of a Seminary’s life. They need not all be men of conspicuous attainments. But they must all be men of thought. They must fight hard against spiritual and intellectual indolence. Their thinking may be confined to narrow limits. But it must be their own. To them theology must be something more than a task. It must be a matter of inquiry. It must lead not to successful memorizing, but to genuine convictions. – J. Gresham Machen

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Thanks to Nic Laz, I was reading through J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Culture lecture.  Amongst other things, Machen touches upon our presuppositions when engaging in missional or missionary work. I found these interesting quotes:

We are all agreed that at least one great function of the Church is the conversion of individual men. The missionary movement is the great religious movement of our day. Now it is perfectly true that men must be brought to Christ one by one. There are no labor-saving devices in evangelism. It is all hand-work.And yet it would be a great mistake to suppose that all men are equally well prepared to receive the gospel. It is true that the decisive thing is the regenerative power of God. That can overcome all lack of preparation, and the absence of that makes even the best preparation useless. But as a matter of fact God usually exerts that power in connection with certain prior conditions of the human mind, and it should be ours to create, so far as we can, with the help of God, those favorable conditions for the reception of the gospel. False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion. Under such circumstances, what God desires us to do is to destroy the obstacle at its root.

This seems to call for a rigorous philosophical approach to our evangelism — quite contrary to the prevailing anti-intellectualism of our day.  Machen writes,

What is today [a] matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires. In that second stage, it has gone too far to be combatted; the time to stop it was when it was still a matter of impassionate debate. So as Christians we should try to mold the thought of the world in such a way as to make the acceptance of Christianity something more than a logical absurdity.

He asks,

Is it not far easier to be an earnest Christian if you confine your attention to the Bible and do not risk being led astray by the thought of the world? We answer, of course it is easier. Shut yourself up in an intellectual monastery, do not disturb yourself with the thoughts of unregenerate men, and of course you will find it easier to be a Christian, just as it is easier to be a good soldier in comfortable winter quarters than it is on the field of battle. You save your own soul—but the Lord’s enemies remain in possession of the field.

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What is light? In our culture, the throbbing glow of plasma screens, neon signs, and halogen-illuminated billboards constantly barrages our senses.   During the holidays this is taken to the nth degree as we’re  inundated by the dazzling array of Christmas lights, holiday candles, shining stars, and Rudolph’s glowing red nose. Do you see what I see?

But, what is light? Is it something that glows in the dark and fills our heart with a warm tingling feeling? Is it something that wells up within us and makes us know that all is well? Or is it something that shines on our world and lights up what would otherwise be darkness? What I’d like to assert in this blog post is that not all kinds of light are the same. Roughly, there are two kinds of light: True light, and false light.  And one is the counterfeit and forgery of the other. And yet they’re both difficult to distinguish because they both appear to humans in the form of LIGHT.

As created beings, we are inherently drawn to light.  We are enamored by it and become transfixed by it.  What is it about the flames of a camp-fire? Or the waves from a TV-screen? (Even if we really don’t want to watch it, our eyes are irresistibly drawn to its constant beam.) A crude example from the animal world would be the moth — mindlessly crashing itself into the porch light.

However, my favorite example is the Angler Fish. The setting is total darkness. And out of the pitchest blackness of the ocean’s depths shines this little light glowing in the dark. And all the little fishes find comfort in this little light. They’re drawn to it. Indeed, they’re enamored and entranced by it.  And yet, little to they realize that their little light will spell their doom. It has drawn them by its glow and yet failed to reveal to them the scary predator lurking in the periphery of the picture. Rather than leading them to freedom, it has trapped them for devouring.

And how much is our life like this?  We’re enamored and entranced by the little lights in our lives.  By the glowing beams of warm feeling which offer themselves to us to make us feel good (for awhile). They promise us happiness and we believe them. And yet this is totally different from the concept of light that we get from Scripture.

In Scripture we get an idea of light which (rather than merely entrancing us by its glow) actually lights up our whole world so that we no longer are in darkness but can walk in broad daylight.  The Gospel of John gets at this:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Peter experienced this when he was set free from prison:

Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. (Acts 12:7)

The Biblical concept of light is not something that glows in the inner recesses of our hearts, but which illuminates all of creation.  Even when God set the stars in the heavens (and Paul calls Christians to shine like stars in Phil. 2) they are not meant merely to shine so that we can feel good looking at them (think Hollywood) but so that they can shed light upon this earth.

And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth. (Gen. 1:17)

Indeed, the fact that men have any life in them at all, any light at all — so that they can live and move and have their being — is because Christ is their light. This is true even for unbelievers.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

Of course, the world has never realized this.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. (John 1:9-11)

Not only has the world not believed, but (because of the rulers of the air) they have erected their own ‘lights’ instead; lights which neither illuminate the world or lead people in the way of life (who is Christ). Rather, these lights are more like glow-sticks; fun to look at, but leaving everyone still in pitch darkness.

This false light appears like true light, and thus (even for the Christian) is hard to distinguish.  They both seem similar in substance.  And what Christian would ever suspect light?  Isn’t light always pure and essentially good? Certainly it’s not something to ever question or criticize? And yet Scripture tells us,

And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. (2 Cor. 11:14)

Because of this many Christians are lead away to believe their ‘inner light’ is the truth of God, when really it is a counterfeit deception. This kind of thinking demonstrates how much we in the West are influenced more by Plato than by Judeo-Christianity.

As C.S. Lewis aptly put it,

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

It is essential that we, as Christians, learn to discern what is true light and what is false light.  We must be taught from Scripture and by the Holy Spirit to distinguish the “light of the world” from its forgeries.  If the light of the world is not Christ, it is no light at all.

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